Chances are, you or someone you know will suffer from a form of heart disease, unfortunately. Heart disease, which is also referred to as cardiovascular disease (CVD), is the number one cause of death in the United States. Here are seven factors that the American Heart Association (AHA) identifies as being important to heart health:

  1. Smoking status
  2. Healthy weight
  3. Healthy diet
  4. Physical activity
  5. Good cholesterol
  6. Normal blood pressure
  7. Normal blood sugar

Unfortunately, in 2011, the report showed that 94% of adults have poor levels of at least one of these factors, and 38% performed poorly at three or more. In fact, a study showed that slight elevations in blood sugar levels (even among non-diabetics) raised the risk for heart disease. What’s even more shocking is that half of all U.S. children between the ages of 12 and 19 score poorly on four or less of these factors. But from a cellular level, adverse cardiovascular changes found in children should not be that surprising. Just consider poor dietary choices, sedentary lifestyle, and smoking habits. Foods that are high in fats and sugars and limited physical activity among youth are primarily responsible for the rising obesity epidemic. And obesity is linked to heart disease and other health problems such as diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

It is clear that fast food has deleterious effects on your health. Over time, continually eating processed carbs and bad fats changes the way the human body works on an epigenetic level, which will promote diseases like atherosclerosis (hardened blood vessels due to fat buildup and inflammation). A study showed that the consumption of fast food once a week raised a person’s risk of death from coronary heart disease by 20%, and the risk increased to 50% if the individual consumed fast food two to three times a week. Ironically, the study’s participants were young, educated nonsmokers—a profile most often associated with a reduced risk for CVD, which goes to show just how harmful fast food can be on your health.

I tell my patients to eat whole grains, fruits, and vegetables daily in order to ensure that they are receiving adequate amounts of fiber, vitamins, and minerals. I know it might be tempting to swing by a fast food restaurant for a ready-made breakfast, but in the long run, you’re trading strength and longevity for multiple chronic conditions as you age. Don’t do it! Don’t accept the convenience of a quick meal, because you’ll be paying for it later with health problems like heart disease.

If you’re still not convinced that eating fast food (even if it’s once in blue moon) can have deadly effects on your health, researchers at the University of Montreal have reported that just one fast food meal changes endothelial function in blood vessels. Endothelial cells comprise a thin layer of tissue within the interior surface of every blood vessel in your body. The endothelial layer is important because one of its many functions includes maintaining adequate blood flow throughout the body’s circulatory system, which it is able to do by preventing the aggregation of substances on the inner surface of blood vessels. But, as you know, cardiovascular disease is one of the top causes of death in the United States, so, clearly, there are other factors at play that lead to endothelial dysfunction. And you guessed it—diet disrupts the endothelium, causing it to lose its cardioprotective function.

The researchers compared a fast-food-style meal to a Mediterranean-style meal. After just one fast food meal, the researchers compared the arterial dilation before and after the meal. The conclusion: The arteries were 24% less dilated after the participant ate, compared with the fasting state. As you know, a Mediterranean-style meal consists of olive oil and fish, among other things that are healthful. The participants who were placed on the Mediterranean diet showed normal arterial dilation and no significant changes in blood flow. The study findings are important because they examine the effects of diet on endothelial function, which is an important prognostic indicator for long-term cardiovascular risk.

There’s having a poor diet and then there are the diets that are intended to improve health. These diets have also been shown to have an adverse effect on heart health. A study reported that women who followed a high-protein, low-carb diet increased their risk for developing CVD substantially. A Swedish study reported that maintaining a low-carb, high-fat diet for a long period of time results in the development of risk factors that attribute to heart disease. The problem lies in the fact that dieters fail to follow such diets appropriately. Rather than relying on plant sources such as nuts, beans, and edamame for protein, dieters turn to red meat. Also, they fail to realize that the low-carb aspect of their diet should focus on avoiding refined carbohydrates, not healthy carbs such as brown rice, veggies, legumes, and fruit. That is why I stress in my upcoming book, The Gene Therapy Plan, the importance of eating a balanced diet that includes healthy one-third portions of carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

Benn M, Tybjærg-Hansen A, McCarthy MI, Jensen GB, Grande P, Nordestgaard BG. Nonfasting Glucose, Ischemic Heart Disease, and Myocardial Infarction: A Mendelian Randomization Study. Journal of the American College of Cardiology. 2012;59(25):2356-2365.
Cantin J, Lacroix S, Tardif J, Nigam A. 390 Does the Adherence to a Mediterranean Diet Influence Baseline and Postprandial Endothelial Function? Canadian Journal of Cardiology. 2012;28(5):S245.
Lagiou P, Sandin S, Lof M, Trichopoulos D, Adami HO, Weiderpass E. Low carbohydrate-high protein diet and incidence of cardiovascular diseases in Swedish women: prospective cohort study. BMJ: British Medical Journal. 2012;344.
Johansson I, Nilsson L, Stegmayr B, Boman K, Hallmans G, Winkvist A. Associations among 25-year trends in diet, cholesterol and BMI from 140,000 observations in men and women in Northern Sweden. Nutrition Journal. 2012;11(1):40.
Photo Credit: marilyn barbone/